West Hansen drives his muddy Subaru through the industrial landscape of Southeast Texas where he grew up – past Bible churches, donut shops and the silver industrial towers of refineries. The longtime social worker says he’s given up on explaining to his clients how safe COVID-19 vaccines are.
“I got tired of it,” he says. “I realized that there is no way to convince someone once they have made up their mind.”
He stops in the neatly trimmed courtyard of a townhouse where Donna and Danny Downes are waiting for him in their living room. She is a work from home administrator for a fencing contractor; he is a retired insurance salesman who is legally blind. They are devout Baptists.
“We don’t like vaccines because we feel like if we live healthy…we have more immunity,” she says. “And if we get it, we feel like it’s God’s will, and so we just leave it in his hands.” The virus killed Donna’s sister and sent her husband to the hospital, but they remain opposed to getting vaccinated.
“We just think it’s a big government thing where they’re trying to control the public,” Danny says.
About 66% of Americans are fully vaccinated. But as the United States approaches one million deaths from COVID-19, the death rate from the virus is mostly due to unvaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, about one in six Americans say they “definitely won’t get the vaccine,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“One thing that’s been really consistent across all of our surveys is the size of the group that says they’re definitely not getting vaccinated,” says Liz Hamel, vice president and director of public policy and survey research at the KFF. “It hasn’t moved for over a year.”
“Those who were most likely to say they definitely won’t get vaccinated are Republicans and people living in rural areas, as well as white evangelical Christians,” she says.
Kaiser’s survey data shows that 20% of those who say they will never get a vaccine identify as Democrats or politically independents, and 28% live in cities or suburbs.
Hansen, a 60-year-old social worker who has done this job for nearly half his life, says his clients are often elderly people who need help with their daily lives. Its role is to inform them of the government benefits and services they can access, including free vaccines.
“This reluctance to get vaccinated goes against the fact that family members have died from COVID,” he says. “They openly say, ‘Yes, my brother died of COVID,’ or ‘My mother died of COVID,’ and they still won’t get the vaccine knowing full well that’s a possibility for them.”
On another call that day, Hansen parks in front of a dilapidated house at the end of an unpaved wooded road. Inside the rooms are overrun with cats and littered with garbage. A husband and his wife, in bathrobes, stretched out in armchairs in front of a television are waiting for her.
The woman, a 57-year-old retired graphic designer named Faye, is asking that her surname not be used as she was disabled by a stroke last year and wants her medical confidentiality.
“Yes, we had polio vaccination years and years ago and it worked well,” she says. “The measles vaccine worked well. But I don’t know how long it took to get those vaccines… I felt the vaccination came out too quickly after COVID came in.”
Faye says she grounded due to a stroke last October. She was in hospital earlier this year due to complications from COVID.
“To find out months later, after people get vaccinated, they still get COVID,” she says, “So what’s the point? I just don’t believe in vaccination. fear.”
Later that week, Hansen visits Betty and Mike Spencer, a retired teacher and truck driver who live in the countryside near the San Marcos River in central Texas. The Spencers candidly admit that they believe in conspiracy theories. Mike says he watches Alex Jones’ Infowars and is wary of accepted accounts of the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“You know,” he said with a wry smile, “there are several people who say the only difference between a conspiracy theory and the truth is six to eight months.”
As for the vaccine, Mike says he thinks it was designed as “a tool for depopulation”.
“I think there are malicious things in there that have to do with nanotechnology and transhumanism and the Internet of Things making people – possibly with 6G coming after 5G – where you’re biologically connected to the Internet at any time” he says.
For the record, COVID-19 vaccines are FDA-approved and CDC-recommended because they are safe and effective in preventing severe or fatal cases of the virus.
Not all Hansen customers are needle-averse. Elizabeth Yahr is a 78-year-old retired hairdresser who has been vaccinated. When the social worker arrives, she’s slumped over her La-Z-Boy watching TV with her family.
“I’ve seen too many people die from COVID. So it seems stupid to me not to want to get vaccinated,” she insists.
According to recent data from KFF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, partisanship and political ideology play a much larger role than scientific evidence in vaccination decisions. In the survey, 56% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats said they had been vaccinated. The unvaccinated people quoted in this story all say they voted Republican in the last election. During the pandemic, misinformation about vaccines has become widespread. More and more people are wary of mainstream media and choosing their own sources of truth, according to a separate report from KFF.
“I mean, they’re mainstream,” says Faye, the retired graphic designer. “They’ll just say what the government wants them to say. I’m not an idiot.”
When asked where she got her news, Donna Downes replied, “I don’t really watch a news program,” she said. “I just do a lot of research, and people I trust, who feel the same way I do, I follow.”
When vaccines became available a year ago, Hansen thought they were a godsend because many of his clients were older, with pre-existing medical conditions. But as vaccines became increasingly politicized, he watched his clients reject them one by one.
“It’s just shocking,” Hansen says. “I mean, you offer a hand to a drowning person and they slap them and they doubt you can bring them back to shore. It’s very confusing.”
Hansen’s frustration is matched by that of Kenneth Coleman, director of Beaumont’s public health department. He says that in Jefferson County — where Beaumont is the largest city — just over half the residents are fully vaccinated, a rate that tracks state and nation. His office pleaded with people to get vaccinated.
“Beaumont is not a very big city,” says Coleman. “So nowhere is too far in Beaumont. For those who want it, (they) got it. And for those who didn’t get it, (they) just don’t want it.”
In his 30 years with the department, Coleman says he’s never seen people so opposed to common sense health practices. Today, he worries not only about another deadly variant of COVID, but also about the fundamental loss of trust in public health services.
What happens, he postulates, in the event of an epidemic of measles, meningitis or tuberculosis?
“I have people calling me,” he continues, “Well, I don’t trust anything the CDC says,” I say, “Well, when it comes to public health, there’s nothing left no one to trust anymore because the CDC is the bible of public health.'”
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.